Select Page

The Matriarchate, or Mother-Age

.February 25, 1891 — National Council of Women of the United States, Washington DC


[Read by Susan B. Anthony]

Without going into any of the fine calculations of historians as to the centuries of human growth, I would simply state that some agree on about eighty-five thousand years. They assign sixty thousand to savagery, twenty thousand to barbarism, and five thousand to civilization.

For my present purpose, these facts are only interesting to show for how long a period, in proportion, women reigned supreme; the arbiters of their own destiny, the protectors of their children, the acknowledged builders of all there was of home life, religion, and later, from time to time, of government.

All along from the beginning until the sixteenth century, when Luther eliminated the feminine element wholly from the Protestant religion and brought the full power of the Church to enforce woman’s complete subjection, we find traces of the matriarchate. Karl Pearson, in a series of deeply interesting essays, gives us the result of his researches into the works of modern historians, and the startling facts they unearth, from what to most of us is the dead, unknown, eternal past, shadowed in mystery. The publication of Wilkeson’s “Ancient Egypt” in 1836, of “Das Mutterecht,” by Bachofen in 1861, of Morgan’s “Ancient Society” in 1877, with other lesser lights pursuing the same trend of investigation, all show the leading, independent position women held for ages.

What is often said, and repeated from time to time and never contradicted, is accepted as truth. Thus, the assertion that women have always been physically inferior to men, and consequently have always been held in a subject condition, has been universally believed. This view has furnished the opponents to woman’s emancipation their chief arguments for holding her in bondage, and logically so, for if at all periods and in all latitudes and longitudes woman had held the same subordinate position, men would naturally infer that what we choose to call Providence, for wise purposes, had made woman the slave of man. The worst feature of these assumptions is that women themselves believe them, and feel that to strive for their own emancipation is simply an attempt at the impossible. Fortunately, historical research has at last proved the fallacy of these assumptions and all the arguments that grow out of them. Mankind may be traced by a chain of necessary inferences back to a time when, ignorant of fire, without articulate language, without artificial weapons, they depended, like the wild animals, upon the spontaneous fruits of the earth.

Through all this period woman was left to protect herself and forage for her children. Morgan, in his “Ancient Society,” gives many remarkable examples of the superior position of women among different tribes in the latter part of the period of barbarism. Among the greater number of the American aborigines the descent of property and children were in the female line. Women sat in the councils of war and peace and their opinions had equal weight on all questions. Among the Winnebagoes that occupied the territory now known as Wisconsin, a woman was at the head of the nation. The same was true among the early tribes or gens in the Eastern Hemisphere. In the councils of the Iroquois gens every adult male or female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it. It elected and deposed its sachem and chief, it elected Keepers of the Faith, it condoned or avenged the murder of a gentilis, and it adopted persons into the gens.

At the epoch of European discovery, the American Indian tribes generally were organized into gentes, with descent in the female line. Before paterfamilias was known, the family was nowhere considered a unit around which society centered. Nothing whatever was based on the [nuclear] family in any of its forms, because it was incapable of entering a gens as a whole. The gens was homogenous and to a great extent permanent in duration, and as such the natural basis of a social system. A family of the monogamic type might have individualized and become powerful in society at large, but the gens did not and could not recognize the family as an integer of itself.

This is equally true of the modern family and political society. Although individualized by property rights and privileges, and recognized as a legal entity by statutory enactments, the family is not the unit of the political system. The State recognizes the counties of which it is composed, the county its townships, but the townships take no note of the family. So in the early periods the nation recognized its tribes, the tribes its phratries, and the phratries its gentes, but the gens took no note of the family.

Thus Morgan flatly contradicts modern historians who assert that the social system of the early Greeks “was the home, the hearth, or family.” Like our modern opponents, they cling to the idea of “the family unit,” because on that is based the absolute power of the father over the property, children, and the civil and political rights of wives. It is worthy of note that our barbarian ancestors seem to have had a higher idea of justice to woman than American men in the nineteenth century, professing to believe, as they do, in our republican principles of government.

During these early periods the property of woman was in her own line and gens, and man’s property was in his own line and gens. The following case at the Pueblo of Oraybe shows that the husband acquires no rights over the property of the wife, or over the children of the marriage. A Zunian married an Oraybe woman, and had by her three children. He resided with them at Oraybe until his wife died, when the relatives of the deceased wife took possession of her children and her household property, leaving to him his clothing, horse, and weapons. As was the custom, he returned to his own people at Zuni. A similar case occurred at another of the Moqui Pueblos. A woman died, leaving property, children, and husband. The deceased wife’s relatives took the property and children, and all the husband was allowed to take was his own clothing, with the privilege of going whithersoever he desired. From these cases, it appears the children belonged to the mother, not to the father, and that he was not allowed to take them even after the mother’s death. Such, also, was the usage among the Iroquois and other Northern tribes, and among the village Indians of Mexico.

The growth of the idea of property, and the rise of monogamy, which in a measure assured the paternity of children, formed motives sufficiently powerful to bring children into the gens of their father and a participation in the inheritance of his estate. But this invasion of the mother’s rights was a slow process and for long periods resisted.

Mr. Morgan shows, too, that the early tribes in Greece, like the American aborigines, were essentially democratic in their government. Historians, accustomed to monarchical governments, would naturally interpret words and actions in harmony with their ideas. Thus, Mr. Grote has a memorable dictum of Ulysses in the Iliad to prove that the Greeks had a one-man government: “The rule of many is not a good thing; let us have one ruler only,—one king,—him to whom Zeus hath given the sceptre with the tutelary sanctions.” But this saying has no significance as applied to government. Ulysses, from whose address the quotation is taken, was speaking of the command of an army before a besieged city. There was no occasion for Ulysses to discuss or endorse any plan of government; but he had sufficient reason for advocating obedience to a single commander of the army before a besieged city.

As thus we have seen that Grote, in his “History of Greece,” writing from his own true inwardness, mistook the spirit of the times of which he wrote, it behooves us women to question all historians, sacred and profane, who teach by examples or precepts any philosophy that lowers the status of the mothers of the race, or favors the one-man power in government.

As far back into the shadowy past as human thought has penetrated, and been able by a process of reason to substantiate the facts of primeval life, we behold woman in all her native dignity, self-poised and self-supporting, her own head and hands her guidance and protection. The instincts of motherhood gave her the first thought of privacy and seclusion, and led her to make a home for herself and children in the caves of the earth, safe from the wild beasts of the forests, and the wily hunter, who lived on uncooked food and slept on the ground, wherever night found him. While his rude activities developed but few of his faculties, the woman, in solitude, was learning the great lessons of life. A new birth! What a mystery for her to ponder! What love and tenderness helpless infancy calls out; what intelligence and activity its necessities compel; what forethought and responsibility in providing for herself and children it involves! Sex relations being transitory and promiscuous, the idea of fatherhood was unknown. As men naturally have no sense of paternal responsibility, no one knew nor cared about the father of a child. To know one’s mother was deemed all-sufficient for a legitimate name and an abiding place.

The period of woman’s supremacy lasted through many centuries,— undisputed, accepted as natural and proper wherever it existed, and was called the matriarchate, or mother-age.

It was plainly traceable among the Aryans, the Germans, the Persians, and indications of it are still seen among uncivilized tribes and nations. Careful historians now show that the greatest civilizing power all along the pathway of natural development has been found in the wisdom and tender sentiments growing out of motherhood. For the protection of herself and her children woman made the first home in the caves of the earth; then huts with trees in the sunshine. She made the first attempts at agriculture; raised grains, fruits, and herbs which she learned to use in sickness. She was her own physician; all that was known of the medical art was in her hands. She domesticated the cow and the goat, and from the necessities of her children learned the use of milk. The women cultivated the arts of peace, and the sentiments of kinship, and all there was of human love and home-life. The necessities of motherhood were the real source of all the earliest attempts at civilization.

Thus, instead of being a “disability,” as unthinking writers are pleased to call it, maternity has been the all-inspiring motive or force that impelled the first steps towards a stable home and family life. Clearly the birth of civilization must be sought in the attempt of woman at self-preservation during the period of pregnancy and lactation.

What man achieved at that period was due to the contest for food with his fellows and the wild beasts. He simply invented and improved weapons of warfare; but the woman, handicapped as she appeared to be by child-bearing, became on this very account the main factor in human progress. The man’s contributions at this early period are nothing as compared to woman’s. Her varied responsibilities as mother, bread-winner, protector, defender of a group of helpless children, raised her to intellectual and inventive supremacy and made her the teacher and ruler of man.

“Perhaps more interesting for us to-day is the actual existence of the matriarchate in the north of Africa among the Touaregs. ‘The matrix dyes the child’ is one of their proverbs. The child belongs to the mother and not to the father; it is the blood of the mother, and not that of the father, which confers on the child the rank he is to take. Formerly, when there was a question of territorial distribution, the lands granted to each family were inscribed in the name of the mother. The Berber law gives to women the administration of their property; at Rhat, they alone dispose of houses, gardens,—in a word, of all the landed property in the country. Among the Touaregs, not only is woman held as the equal of man, but she enjoys a preferable condition. She disposes of her hand, and in the conjugal community she administers her own fortune, without being forced to contribute to the expenses of the household. Thus it happens that, as productions accumulate, the greater part of the wealth is in the hands of the women.

“The Targui (which is the adjective for Touareg) woman is monogamous; she has imposed monogamy on her husband, although the Mussulman law permits him several wives. She is independent in regard to her husband, whom she can repudiate on the slightest pretext: she comes and goes freely. These social customs have produced extraordinary developments in the Targui woman. Her intelligence and her initiative spirit are astonishing in the midst of a Mussulman society. She excels in bodily exercises; on the back of a dromedary she travels a hundred kilometers to attend a soirée; she competes in races with the boldest cavalier of the desert. She is distinguished by intellectual culture; the ladies of the tribe of Ymanan are celebrated for their beauty and their musical talent; when they give concerts the men come eagerly from the most distant parts, adorned like male ostriches. The women of the Berber tribes sing every evening to the accompaniment of their violin; they improvise; in the open desert they revive the cours d’amour of Provence. The Touaregs are the descendants of the Lybians spoken of by Herodotus. This historian tells us that ‘in the valley of the Nile the women go to market and traffic, whilst the men, shut up in houses, weave the linen. The male children are not compelled by law to maintain their parents; this charge is incumbent by law upon the daughters.’ The imposition of such a duty on the daughters sufficed to establish the rule that the wealth of the family should belong to the women, and wherever the woman possesses this economic position she is not under the guardianship of her husband, but is the head of the family.”

The Rev. Samuel Gorman, a missionary among the Taguna Pueblo Indians, remarks, in an address before the Historical Society of New Mexico, that “the right of property belongs to the female part of the family, and descends in that line from mother to daughter. Their land is held in common, as the property of the community, but after a person cultivates a lot he has personal claim to it, which he can sell to one of the community. . . . Their women generally have control of the granary, and they are more provident than their Spanish neighbors about the future. Ordinarily they try to have a year’s provision on hand. It is only when two years of scarcity succeed each other that Pueblos, as a community, suffer hunger.” Of the Senecas of North America, the Rev. Arthur Wright wrote in 1873: “As to their family system, when occupying the old long-houses, it is probable that some one clan predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from other clans. Usually, the females ruled the house. The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such an order it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and, unless saved by the intercession of some aunt or grandmother, he must retreat to his own clan, or go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other. The women were the great power among the clan, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called, from the head of a chief and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with the women.” “The account we find given by the Portuguese navigators of the Nairs, a people inhabiting the coast of Malabar in the fifteenth century, is another proof of the superior condition of women under previous family systems. The Nairs were then in a state of actual civilization; they had a marine and well-organized army; their towns were wealthy and the inhabitants courteous in manners. But the previous notions of the European visitors were strangely upset by what they saw of the social position of the women. There were large families, we are told, consisting of several hundred members bearing the same name. The real estate belonged in common to all members of the gens; the most complete equality reigned among them. The husband, instead of living with his wife and his children, lived with his brothers and sisters in the maternal house; when he left it, he was always accompanied by his favorite sister; at his death his personal property did not go to his children, but was distributed between the children of his sisters. The mother, or, in case of her death, her eldest daughter, was the head of the family; her eldest brother, named the foster-father, managed the estate; the husband was a guest; he only entered the house on fixed days, and did not sit at the table with his wife and children. ‘The Nairs,’ says Barbosa, ‘have an extraordinary respect for their mother; it is from her they receive wealth and honors; they honor equally their eldest sister, who is to succeed the mother and take the management of the family. The children belong to the mother, and she takes their support on herself.’ The Nair family system was maintained among the Malabar peoples till the invasion of Hyder Ali in 1766.”

Strabo says of the primitive people of Spain, “That they suffered a most foolish governance by women; that the women possessed the property, and it passed from mother to daughter; that the latter gave away their brothers in marriage; that the men took a dowry with them into the houses of their wives; that the women performed all the agricultural work, and were as hardy as men.” The women at a later period were not only the rulers of the home, but they were priestesses; the deities were in a great part goddesses. All there was of learning and tradition was in the hands of the women, and folk custom long recognized their superiority to men.

The woman being the source of traditional religion, the care of the gods was essentially hers. About the hearth arose the first conceptions of the altar and sanctuary and the immortality of the soul. She was essentially the wise, and wrote with her staff in the ashes the will of the gods. Her pots and kettles reappear in every witch trial in the Middle Ages. The safety of mother and child, in the solitudes of the vast primeval forests, was due in no small measure to the superstition that woman was in communion with the gods, who would avenge her wrongs. Her spirit is supposed to linger around the hearth after death, and to-day the solitary student sitting over the fire, or the peasant when his family are out, will tell you they have been alone at the hearth with their mother-soul. As woman forms the religion and tradition of this period, the goddesses, not gods, are the more numerous and most worshipped. The oldest, the wisest, the most mysteriously powerful, of the Teutonic deities are female. Jacob Grimm said of the German goddesses years before modern investigations had brought the mother-age to light:

“In the case of the gods, the previous investigation could reach its goal by considering them separately. It seems advisable, however, to consider the goddesses collectively as well as individually, because a common idea lies at the basis of them all, and will thus be more clearly marked. They are conceived of peculiarly as divine mother (göttermutter) travelling about and visiting mortals. From them mankind has learned the business and the arts of housekeeping, agriculture, cattle-raising, spinning, weaving, sowing, reaping, as well as watching the hearth. These labors bring peace and rest to the land and the memory of them remains firmer in pleasing traditions than war and fighting, which, like women, the majority of the goddesses shun.”36 Karl Pearson says, “A truer although unconscious tribute to the civilizing work of women can hardly be imagined. If we add to the arts mentioned by Grimm the art of healing, the elements of religious faith as a tradition, and the runic art of writing, we have a slight picture of what woman accomplished in the centuries which intervened between the promiscuous period and the complete establishment of the father-age.”

With such personal independence and superiority, such authority in the national councils, in religious faith, and at the fireside, with the absolute control of her own home, property, and children, how did it come to pass that the mother was at last dethroned and womanhood degraded in every nation on the globe? The mother’s labors had from an early period been re-enforced by those of her sons whose tastes led them to agriculture and the herding of cattle, to domestic life rather than that of the wandering nomad existence of the wily hunter, but this class was proportionally small. However, in process of time,— as the home with its increasing comforts and attractions, fire, cooked food, and woman’s tender care in old age, sickness, and death, the innocent prattle of children, the mother’s songs and stories, her religious faith and services, all appealed to the better feelings of the wily hunter also,— men began to think, when weary of the battle and the chase, that they would like a permanent foothold in some family group besides the one into which they were born.

As soon as monogamic marriage appeared with property and descent in the male line, and men found themselves comfortably ensconced in a home of their own, they began little by little to make their aggressions, and in time completely dominated woman, leaving her no remnant of authority anywhere, neither in the home, nor at the altar, nor in the councils of the nation.

Having no paternal instinct, no natural love for children, the devices of men to establish the rights of paternity were as varied as ridiculous. It was the custom at one time when the mother gave birth to a child for the acknowledged father to take to his bed to pretend that he had shared in the perils of labor, and thus prove his identity, while the wife waited on him; for the women, accustomed to agricultural work, were so hardened by it that they did not suffer in childbirth.

On this point Karl Pearson tells us the transition from the mother to the father-age was marked by the appearance of women of gigantic stature. The old legends of contests between men and women for supremacy are not such idle fancies as some would have us believe. Very dark shadows indeed do such figures as those of Ildico, Fredegunde, and Brunhilde cast across the pages of history. Such women were only paralleled by the Clytemnestra and Medea of a like phase in Greek development. Among the Germans, too, the poets represent the contest between men and women for the mastery. Wuodan replaces Hellja; Siegfried conquers Brunhilde; Beovulf, the offspring of Grindel and Thor, fights with Gialp and Griep, the daughters of Geirrod. One great element of physical and mental vigor is freedom, which women have never enjoyed except under the Matriarchate.

The Amazons, the present body-guard of the King of Dahomey, the astounding powers of endurance exhibited by domestic servants and the peasant girls of southern Germany and Italy, the fish-women at Boulogne, all point to the great strength when once the physique has been developed. The victory of man over woman was not easily accomplished. It took long centuries to fully confirm it, and traces of the mother-age remain throughout the Medieval times. The permanency of sex relations among the agriculturists and the necessity for organization in matters of defense, which must be entrusted mainly to men, were the beginnings of the father-age.

For though women had been compelled to fight for their own protection, and were abundantly able to maintain the contest, yet wars for territory and conquests over other tribes and nations were opposed by all the tenderest sentiments of their nature. Hence they naturally of their own accord would withdraw from the councils of war and the battle-field, but as angels of mercy to minister to the wounded and the dying. Thus man became ruler, tribal organizer, tribal father, before his position of sexual father was recognized. While the mother still ruled the house, “the Alvater” ruled the fight, though ofttimes guided by the woman.

Driven from the commanding position of home mother, and deprived of her rights to property and children, the last fortress of the Teutonic woman was her sacerdotal privileges. She remained holy as priestess. She had charge of the tribal sacrifice and the tribal religion.

From this last refuge she was driven by the introduction of the Christian religion, with its narrow Pauline doctrine, which made woman mentally and physically the inferior of man, and lawfully in subjection to him.

The spirit of the church in its contempt for women, as shown in the Scriptures, in Paul’s epistles and the Pentateuch, the hatred of the fathers, manifested in their ecclesiastical canons, and in the doctrines of asceticism, celibacy, and witchcraft, destroyed man’s respect for woman and legalized the burning, drowning, and torturing of women by the thousand.

Women and their duties became objects of hatred to the Christian missionaries and of alternate scorn and fear to pious ascetics and monks. The priestess mother became something impure, associated with the devil, and her lore an infernal incantation, her very cooking a brewing of poison, nay, her very existence a source of sin to man. Thus woman, as mother and priestess, became woman as witch. The witch trials of the Middle Ages, wherein thousands of women were condemned to the stake, were the very real traces of the contest between man and woman. Christianity putting the religious weapon into man’s hand made his conquest complete. But woman did not yield without prolonged resistance and a courageous final struggle. Driven from the home, an outlaw and wanderer everywhere, ostracized by the State, condemned by the courts, crucified by the Church, the supreme power of the mother of the race was conquered only by the angel of death, and the Dark Ages tolled her funeral knell.

It was this wholesale, violent suppression of the feminine element, in the effort to establish the Patriarchate, that, more than any other one cause, produced the Dark Ages.

Morgan, in his “Ancient Society,” attributes the premature destruction of ethnic life, in the societies of Greece and Rome, to their failure to develop and utilize the mental and moral conservative forces of the female intellect, which were not less essential than those of men to their progress.

In closing, I would say that every woman present must have a new sense of dignity and self-respect, feeling that our mothers, during some periods in the long past, have been the ruling power, and that they used that power for the best interests of humanity. As history is said to repeat itself, we have every reason to believe that our turn will come again, it may not be for woman’s supremacy, but for the as yet untried experiment of complete equality, when the united thought of man and woman will inaugurate a just government, a pure religion, a happy home, a civilization at last in which ignorance, poverty, and crime will exist no more. Those who watch already behold the dawn of the new day.

“Night wanes—the vapor round the mountains curled
Melts into morn, and light awakes the world.
Mighty Nature bounds as from her birth:
The sun is in the heavens, and life on earth;
Flowers in the valley, splendor in the beam,
Health on the gale, and freshness in the stream.



Source: Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United States, ed. Rachel Foster Avery, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company), pp. 218-227.